Norway, the landscape
To photograph Norway's landscape presents a very different set of challenges to those I am familiar with. It's a challenge I relish but do not yet feel I have made much headway and I hope to be able to spend a lot more time trying in the years ahead! There is no end of amazing subject matter, so the challenge here is making a decision about what next to see and photograph in a way that is different to snapshots or tourist brochure style images. Finding the right light and presenting a sense of scale are, to me, the biggest challenges. This essay is intended to illustrate these and show some of the attempts I have made to convey my view of Norway.
I have been a reasonably regular visitor to Scandinavia for the last few years and have become extremely fond of the nature of the landscape and the contrasts between different areas and countries. Whilst I have only visited Sweden, Norway and Denmark I believe I have managed to develop a mental view of the overall nature of the area, but obviously I have a long way to go before I can claim I really know any particular region, let alone country for so far I have missed large pieces out! There is however a huge contrast between different areas, hardly surprising given it's size, from the very flat Danish countryside to the drama and excitement of the Norwegian fjords.
Fjords, of course, are synonymous with Norway. As someone familiar with the Scottish Highlands I find Fjordland awesome by comparison. Whilst Scottish mountains and lochs have immense grandeur and indeed size, the scale of the Norwegian mountains and fjords is quite different. To put this into some perspective, Scotland's highest mountain, Ben Nevis, is 1344m above sea level. It is the largest of the 284 Scottish Munros, mountains that are greater than 914m above sea level (the equivalent of 3000 feet). Scotland's deepest loch is Loch Morar at 328m deep. In contrast Norway's highest mountain, Galdhøpiggen, is 2469m above sea level and there are a further 290 peaks over 2000m across the country. The average height of the vast Hardangervidda plateau is 1100m. The deepest part of Sognefjord is 1308m, and many other fjords reach to 500m deep or more. As is quite evident from these rather crude statistics, Norway is on a completely different scale to that of anywhere in Scotland.
Using a known reference point such as Scotland is fine when trying to mentally compartmentalise a country, but it is also doing this that things start to fall apart! Just because it is so different means the way one sees the landscape is very different. Of course the same laws of nature continue to apply, but as things are very different the rules deliver very different results! For instance, the sunset times and length of the day are different, very different the further north one travels. This has a profound impact on the light that falls upon the landscape. The geology and impact of the still present glaciers have created very deep chasms with steep and tall sides. Finding the right time for golden light to work its way along these chasms is in some cases plain impossible as their orientation means that they only get sunlight from nearly directly above or that much of the fjord is in shadow. Clouds are omnipresent and consequently there are very few occasions when one can see a completely clear blue sky - thanks to the glaciers.
Waiting for the light
Yes I know that title has been used many times before, but it is very apposite in the context of this photograph taken on 13th August 2006 in Øvre Eidfjord at the bottom of the Hjølmadalen valley. I stood my tripod in the river and waited for about an hour until 8.30pm for the remaining sunshine to break through and light up the mountains on the right hand side.
I was very pleased with this image as I had tried on several previous evenings but the sunlight just did not appear at all, let alone where I wanted it! Despite the clouds it was a very calm evening and I thoroughly enjoyed just sitting watching the river and the light change. Without the sunlight this would have been a rather uninteresting image, but as can be clearly seen it was very selective on where it did choose to play, not because of cloud to the left but because of the mountains casting their shadows. I would have loved to show a similar view further up the valley (i.e. behind me in this photograph) but all I could see was shadow. The next photograph does show the Hjølmadalen valley from further up but I never managed to see this in a low, warm light. Only bright sunshine or shadows!
This second image was taken on 18th August 2006 at 2pm. As can be seen, the sun had started it's move to cast shadows on the left hand side of the valley.
It is a challenge to find the ideal light for landscapes in any part of the world; this problem is not confined to Norway, but the nature of the Norwegian landscape does exacerbate the issue for those who, like me, prefer the evening light as the sun drops over the horizon. I visited this area in August but what I do not know is just how much light could be seen at different times of the year. I know, for example, that along much of the Derbyshire gritstone edges (see the Along Gritstone Crags project) the angle of the light is at its best between about September and November. Research is of course part of the answer - using good detailed maps and an understanding of the sun and its motion could help enormously.
Research and planning play a huge part in getting the perfect image, but patience and luck play a big part too. The next image was taken in August 2004 as a result of watching, waiting and getting out there at the right time. Not perfect by any stretch, but good light at least!
The tourist trap
Let's face it, it takes a lot to beat the best images in the tourist guides and souvenir books that are available all over the country. There are lots of really good examples across Norway, places like Bergen, Oslo, Geirangerfjord, Lofoten and many more. The challenge is to make a photograph different to the rest.
With the relative ease of access to many fantastic vantage points you can be sure there are many thousands of images of the best views. A great example is the view of Geiranger from the 1500m summit of Mount Dalsnibba which can be driven to. The car park is full of tourists taking pictures of the view with their cameraphones, point and shoots and many with more "serious" cameras. I would guess that the vast majority of the images taken of the view are disappointing - probably a good snap or two of the family against a dramatic backdrop, but a photograph of the view itself will not be the same as the one that made one gasp when first seeing it. Mine were just that! Of course, visiting during the main part of the day will not find much in the way of decent light, so that's a simple step to take to improve the picture. Not always possible, of course, if on a tour of on a family holiday. But it is certainly a marker for a subsequent trip and therefore put down to research!
(2008-6152) Geiranger from Mount Dalsnibba
Rubbish! The harsh light does nothing to help the picture.
The above image is an example of a rather poor photograph. Looking at a large print or screen it provides a reminder of the view, but I wouldn't give it room on any wall in my house. Of course, different light could make a huge difference and I intend to revisit at some point in the near future.
An alternative approach when on a tourist visit might be to take some pictures of the other visitors, but my preference is to get a different view. Not necessarily of the star, but in this case of the supporting cast. By looking in the other direction there are some wonderful views of the surrounding mountains. Even just a short walk can deliver new views that most people will not even see! Good light is still needed to get the picture, but with a little work something more interesting can often turn up.
A sense of scale
I like to think that the above photograph of Briksdalen has some mystery about it - what happens behind that line of trees that bisects the torrent? In even a large print it is not easy to see what this photograph is, but what it shows is the Briksdal glacier "tongue" of the Jostedal Glacier in the distance. The river in the foreground is the (very cold!) melt running from the glacier towards Lake Olden and Nordfjord, just a few kilometers down the valley. What is not obvious in this view is the scale. The top of the glacier is at 1200m above sea level and the river at this point is probably 800m lower. From the line of trees to the glacier itself is more than a kilometer. I find that the sheer scale very difficult to portray in photographs.
The scale challenge can be turned to advantage through some abstraction. The next photograph is also of the Briksdal Glacier but taken with a longer lens to simplify the image.
This has been a very short piece describing the 3 main challenges I see in portraying the Norway that I have seen so far:
- being different
Being there to actually appreciate and enjoy the country is something I desperately want to do more of, but that will come over time as will further exploration of the different regions. Even these few photographs illustrate some of the contrasts and I fully intend to increase coverage to build a more balanced view as time permits.
Unfortunately 2008 added an extra two challenges. The first but hopefully temporary problem was me injuring my back on day 2 of a 14 day visit. A prolapsed disc and heavy camera just do not mix, so very few photographs were taken on this trip and those that I did manage were all very close to the car. The second problem is that DFDS Seaways have now closed the ferry route from Newcastle to Bergen, so taking the direct ferry to Norway from the UK is no longer an option. Flying is perfectly possible and another option is to drive up through Germany, Denmark and Sweden or use other indirect ferries. But for sure I'll be back!